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5 Crucial Questions to Ask a Fulfillment Provider

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Deciding when to outsource order fulfillment is a tough choice for any company. As we've covered in the past, there are a number of questions to ask before outsourcing. Once the decision has been made that using a third party service is the correct path for your organization, it's time to consider the right questions to ask a fulfillment provider on your shortlist.

In our industry, that's not quite as easy as you might expect. The exponential growth of e-commerce and the shifting purchase habits of consumers make the need for an experienced and flexible provider more important than ever.

The questions we'll recommend today will help you uncover whether or not the fulfillment services that make your shortlist are ready to handle the demands of your business.

questions for fulfillment providers

5 Crucial Questions to Ask a fulfillment provider

The request for proposal (RFP) phase of choosing a fulfillment service is crucial. The information you request and the questions you ask can make or break the transition, whether you're moving from in-house fulfillment to an outside service or changing to another third party provider.

Spending extra time to get the answers you need from prospective fulfillment partners is far more efficient than having to change providers because the fit isn't quite right.

These are five important questions to ask a fulfillment provider as you research your options and try to create a shortlist.

How do you define what you do? (AND how is IT different to other fulfillment providers?)

Two questions in one to begin with, because the answers will help you frame the rest of your conversations with prospective service providers.

As we tell anyone who will listen, fulfillment is not what it used to be! That's not a negative thing in any sense, but it does mean that modern service providers must understand the challenges of today's market and need to have adapted to the times.

Ask how long they've been around, how their business has changed over the years, and where they see themselves compared to competitors. Not only will you learn more about your potential provider, you'll start to see what drives supply chain operations behind-the-scenes and the areas where your business will definitely need help.

A fulfillment provider who understands their place in the market is one who will be able to guide your business through every twist and turn that the supply chain throws up.

What experience do you have with e-commerce fulfillment?

Things move so quickly in the online environment that just as businesses get used to a digital-first world, tech leaders like Google are telling us they're all in on mobile-first! The times are a-changin', so can your fulfillment provider keep up?

The annual value of global e-commerce sales is close to passing $2 trillion. For most organizations, it's no longer a case of getting e-commerce off the to-do list. It's now a primary focus that demands consistent attention and improvement. Asking about e-commerce fulfillment experience and options brings your conversation around to the modern challenges of order fulfillment.

This includes key sub-questions that you'll need to cover, such as:

  • How will your warehouse systems sync up with my e-commerce platform?
  • What kind of tracking visibility can my customers expect?
  • What EDI solutions do you use and what kind of reliability can I expect from them?
  • Can you define the service levels you meet for other e-commerce clients and what you do to achieve them?
  • Do you have any ideas to improve our current e-commerce set-up?
e-commerce shopping cart

How broad are your service options?

There's no substitute for a service provider that can bend and adapt to unexpected fulfillment requests. A wide range of services means that you can diversify the products you offer to customers. This means different forms of packaging, kit and gift set assembly, flexible storage, varied shipping options, and many other value-added services that you might not anticipate the need for right now.

The ability to provide custom services may not be important to you today, but selecting the right fulfillment service is also about scaling your business.

It's true that the majority of the operation should be standardized so that the potential for disruptions is lowered, but this question is an important indicator of flexibility. It's important to have confidence that your provider has a firm grasp on your business requirements. If they’re able to make appropriate recommendations about specific services and ways to improve your existing operations, it’s a good sign that they’ll be a valuable partner.

This question also helps you understand potential limitations that your fulfillment provider might have, as discussions around customization will dig into the details of what can and cannot be done.

What Accreditations and References Can You Provide?

Like any interview process, every promising candidate still needs to be vetted by an unbiased third party (as much as such a thing can exist!)

Most of the confidence you have in the abilities of those on your shortlist will come from the answers to earlier questions and your own research, but verification from trusted business associations is also valuable. Some of those you talk to will provide extra information about the fulfillment provider in question, which can help you reduce the amount of research you have to do in-house.

Any satisfied clients that you can talk to have the potential to be helpful. That being said, the most valuable are those in a similar field to your own or those who have similar types of supply chain requirements.

At this stage, you should be able to list any concerns you have about a potential fulfillment provider. Take this opportunity to ask these satisfied clients if they encountered similar worries. You may not get all of the answers but the alternative perspective from someone on the client side can help you make a more informed decision.

answers on a compass

Finding the Solution to Your Fulfillment Challenge

As you consider your fulfillment options, it's inevitable that there will be impressive presentations, glossy promotional materials, and no shortage of success stories that potential providers will share. That's okay, but it's only the beginning. Just as you wouldn't source a product without verifying a manufacturer's claims and qualifications, nor should you take a fulfillment center's qualities at face value.

The questions above - and others suggested by your team - should get beneath the surface of the marketing materials.

Now is the time to gauge the level of rapport between you and a potential service provider. During peak periods, you might have to deal with your fulfillment service every day. Your choice needs to be a team you can talk to and feel confident they are on the same page.

You should also feel comfortable that the fulfillment service you choose will be able to meet current business demands, as well as demonstrating the ability to scale operations as your company grows.

Some of the key questions to ask a fulfillment provider are those that challenge them to think about your business and explain why their services will be a good fit. Take the time to develop a comprehensive checklist early on. There's no substitute for getting it right first time, and finding a fulfillment house that is more of a business partner than a simple service provider is the best way to make that happen!